Lawsuit filed over cleaning worker who died in department store bathroom, body not found for days

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The family of a cleaning worker whose body remained in a locked bathroom at a department store for days after she died filed suit Tuesday against the Belk chain, saying her body was so decomposed they couldn't even hold an open casket funeral.

Bessie Durham, a 63-year-old worker with a contractor hired to clean the Belk store near Columbia, South Carolina, went into a family bathroom around 7 a.m. on a Thursday in 2022 and died shortly after from a cardiac problem, attorney Chris Hart said.

Durham had clocked in for work but never clocked out and her cleaning cart sat outside the locked door for four days until Columbia Police called the store trying to find Durham because her family reported the woman missing, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The suit was filed a year to the day when her body was found on Sept. 19, 2022, at the store in Columbiana Mall.

The store was open for regular hours the entire time. Durham worked for a company contracted to clean the store, and the manager called while she was dead but no one had found her to complain the bathrooms weren't getting cleaned, Hart said.

“They didn’t ask if Bessie was OK. They didn’t ask why hasn’t this cart moved in four days," Hart said. “They asked why aren’t the bathrooms being cleaned.”

When police called the store, they pulled up footage from a security camera that showed Durham entering the bathroom shortly after her shift started and never coming out, the lawsuit said.

Durham worked for Belk for seven years on the cleaning crew before the chain hired a contractor to do that work and that company subsequently hired Durham, Hart said. The contractor was not named as a defendant in the suit though Hart said the family also was considering legal action against it.

Belk didn't respond to an email seeking comment about the lawsuit. After Durham's death, the company said in a statement that it sent its deepest condolences to Durham's family and was trying to figure out what had happened.

Columbia Police investigated, but determined no crime had been committed, spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said.

An autopsy found Durham died from a cardiac problem, and older people often feel what seems like a need to use the bathroom in the moments before they are struck, Hart said.

The family isn't asking for a specific amount of damages. The lawsuit said Belk employees should have regularly inspected the store not only for Durham's safety, but the safety of shoppers and other employees.

The store began locking the bathroom after a shooting at the mall. Keeping the bathroom open, but locked, also created a safety hazard that prevented Durham from getting help, the lawsuit said.

Durham's body showed obvious signs of decomposition when it was found, preventing the family from properly grieving, attorney Justin Bamberg said.

“This family should have had the opportunity to say goodbye the right way instead of having to sit at the funeral and smell the decomposing body of someone they cared about,” Bamberg said.